Friends: I spent today riding Tuesday's route through the lesser Alps from Valreas to the ski town of Villard-de-Lans, while the peloton had an easy day of it on the flats to Nimes after two demanding days in the Pyrenees. Tomorrow will be a rest day for the both of us. I will spend it biking to L'Alp d'Huez, about forty miles away. I'll be two days early for Wednesday's time trial, enough time I hope to find some space within ten miles of the climb for my tent.
It was no worries for the first time on a Sunday of finding a bar with TV, as I ended up in Villard-de-Lans, a hopping resort town with a plaza full of packed outdoor cafes and an Internet cafe open until two a.m. and side streets swarming with tourists, many of whom are here for The Tour. I arrived at 4:15 after quite a bit of climbing, two hours after TV coverage began and 45 minutes before the predicted finish of the stage. I ended up in a head-craning corner of a bar beneath the TV. It didn't matter much, as there was a breakaway group of ten non-contenders twelve minutes ahead of the lolling-along peloton. There would be no dramatics on this day. I could have been on my way if I chose, but there was a copy of the daily sports paper "L'Equipe" laying around with its usual eight pages devoted to The Tour. It is always well worth perusing. Its a good thing my French is limited, otherwise I would want to buy it every day and devour its every morsel. I still spend a buck on it every several days to absorb whatever I can. Today's issue featured pictures of a dejected Tyler Hamilton abandoning the race and an ecstatic Voeckler just clinging to the yellow jersey. His courageous efforts have made him a national hero.
Lance's victory was almost incidental news. Just as my every campsite is intensely memorable and personal, a minor oasis I feel blessed to happen upon, so too has every bar I've watched the Tour at, whether in the back kitchen with four Scottish cyclists or in a proper restaurant packed with partiers gathered for the event. Yesterday, I was able to share the precious event with a pair of 30-year old Americans, one from LA and the other from Denver, who were following the Tour on motorcycles. They had started in Amsterdam, as that was cheapest place to rent motorcycles for a month. If they went over 2,500 miles they would have to pay extra, so they skipped the same five stages I did--the two out to Brittany and the two in the Pyrenees, as well as today's stage. They too were wild-camping, finding a spot to pitch their tent along each day's route the night before. It doesn't fully qualify as wild, unpermitted camping, as each day's route becomes a quasi-sanctioned campground the night preceding The Race, jammed with RVs and tenters. After the peloton passes, they rush to a bar with TV, just as I do, to see the finish. They were having a grand time, but were disappointed to have foraged only one route marker so far.
Villard-de-Lans is the least Tour decorated town of all the stage start and finish towns I have visted. Most towns go ga-ga over being part of the Tour, plastering themselves with yellow bunting and ribbons and decorated bikes. Every shop window has a Tour or bicycle theme. There was still a cluster of bikes painted white and decorated with flowers at the town entry, and others scattered about town, but there aren't the banners and jerseys and such I've seen elsewhere, nor do many of the stores have bikes or yellow in their windows celebrating the Tour. In some towns, it almost seemed as if an edict had come down demanding that every business and residence do something related to the event. All the bike frenzy adds to the euphoria of the event. I want to linger outside every store and glory in its display and then go buy something from them. Rarely have I had adequate time in a town to see more than a fraction of all it has to offer. I knew I was going to be in no rush here and was really looking forward to a prolonged revel.
Besides the start and finish towns, just about every town The Tour passes through goes overboard stationing and dangling brightly decorated bikes everywhere and putting up banners honoring the Tour, almost as if they are in competition with one another or to insure the organizers will include them again in the near future. Common citizens get in on the act as well, painting yellow and green and red polka dot jerseys on their sheep, or piling bales of hay in a bike formation, or stuffing straw into Lycra and mounting a human figure on a bike and on and on. Many are similar to one another, but there is often something of stunning originality. Each day's stage includes enough bike art to fill a wing of the Louvre. He who loves the bike couldn't be more exhilarated. Even if one could care less about racing, if he cares about the bike, he'd be exhilarated to be a part of this.